Monday, August 30, 2010

"My mother blamed herself till the day she died."

Last week, a Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's report on the bombings in Claudy of 1972 accused the Catholic Church and British Government of protecting Fr James Chesney, a local priest suspected of involvement in the massacre. I met some victims of the car bombing for the Irish Independent's Review last Saturday, including Mark Eakin (above) whose 8-year-old sister Kathryn died beside him.

The month of July 1972 had been an idyllic one for Mark Eakin and his sister Kathryn. They had whiled away the hot summer days at the family caravan in Castlerock, a seaside resort on the Derry coastline. On Sunday, July 30, their mother Merle told the children that it was time they headed home to the inland village of Claudy, where the Eakins ran a shop.

The family arrived back in Claudy early the following morning, July 31. At 10.15am, the first of three car bombs detonated on the main street of the village. Kathryn, aged eight, was killed instantly while cleaning the front window of the family shop.

"My mother blamed herself till the day she died for taking us out of Castlerock that day," says Mark Eakin, who was 12 at the time of the bombings. "She could never put it to bed."

This week, Mark joined other survivors and relatives of Claudy bombing victims to hear the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's findings. After the report was made public, it was alleged that the British Government, the RUC and the Catholic Church had colluded to protect Derry priest Fr James Chesney, who was suspected to be part of an IRA gang that planted the bombs.

The revelation has not brought peace to those for whom the Claudy atrocity is still an open wound.

Going to this week's meeting was "like going to a funeral", says survivor Mary Hamilton.

Now a UUP councillor for Foyle, Mary was seriously injured when one of the bombs exploded outside the hotel she owned with her husband Ernest in Claudy. She was 31 at the time. "I was so sad on Wednesday because I knew I would be re-living that day," she says. "I felt so bad I dressed in black."

Her memories of that terrible morning are still vivid. When the first bomb went off, she and a neighbour who had just come into the hotel rushed on to the street. "I saw a lady lying without arms and legs, on fire -- she'd been covered with petrol from one of the cars. Another lady, Mrs McLaughlin, who owned the cafe, she was lying with blood pouring out of her head and her daughter saying to me, 'Mary, Mary, help my mother'. Unfortunately, I couldn't help her."

Mary and the other shocked villagers were ushered away from the bomb site -- not realising they were walking straight into the path of the second and third bombs.

"We met the boy of the Temples [William] down the street, it was his first day at work, and he had hurt his hand in the first bomb. A few moments afterwards, he was blown to bits," she says.

"My legs were injured. I still have metal in one leg, it's too deep-seated really, and I suffer every day with it. But I'm here. Saying that, there shouldn't have been bombs. The sights I saw that day, they are sights that never leave you. A good friend of ours, David Miller, was just blown to bits literally beside me."

The second and third bombs had detonated almost simultaneously, one outside the post office and the other outside Mary's hotel, the Beaufort.

"We were given no warning. They had forgotten that two weeks beforehand, they'd blown up the telephone exchange and no one could get through."

For Mark Eakin, too, the smallest details of that day are etched deeply. He was just three yards from Kathryn when the first bomb went off. While she died from a fragment of shrapnel that pierced her brain, he escaped with some minor cuts.

"I had actually just walked past Kathryn," he recalls. "We were messing about, you know, brother and sister sort of stuff. She nearly had the window cleaned and there was a bottle of Windolene sitting on the window ledge beside her. So I lifted it up and skimmed a bit off the top and scooted it along the window.

"I remember she was standing at the top of a set of steps and she was roaring and shouting at me and then the explosion just went off."

The psychological fallout of the bombings remained long after the shattered buildings were patched back together. Mary Hamilton found that for a long time afterwards she would cover her ears with her hands when she walked past a parked car, always afraid that it would blow up.

Mark and Kathryn Eakin's parents, Merle and Billy, both passed away in the last two years, within six months of each other.

"They were never the same again. They never had the same love of life. They had their good days and their bad days, but there were more bad days than good."

On a purely economic level, businesses and homes had been devastated by the three car bombs. Custom was slow to return to the village and both the Beaufort Hotel and Eakin's shop suffered. The Eakins eventually had to sell up. Their structurally frail building was pulled down and new apartments and a few small business units stand in its place.

The compensation packages offered by the British government/Northern Ireland Office at the time were not of much help. "It was a struggle to arrange that compensation," says Mark Eakin. "My father wouldn't settle, he argued, argued, argued with them. But the bank rates were going up, interest rates were sky high, and the whole thing just crippled him and he just had to take it."

The people of Claudy were left to support each other. Five Catholics and four Protestants died in the bombings and the mixed community tried to scramble back to some sense of normality.

"We were very good friends," says Mary Hamilton. "Quite a lot of us had to live in caravans afterwards and if you had a stool you didn't need, you'd give it to whoever did. Claudy is a small community and we all worked together. I felt for the Catholic people of Claudy after the report."

Mary intends writing to British Prime Minister David Cameron to appeal for further investigations into the bombings but she isn't hopeful.

"They said after the Saville Report [into the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry] that there were not going to be any more big investigations. But I think that the government and the church and the hierarchy of the police have to tell us everything they know."

Mark reiterates that all he is asking is that one person will stand up and be counted. "Those responsible are going to be heading towards their 70s, what's the point in putting that man in jail? He's going to be in his own jail soon enough. They have a chance now to make their peace with God at least."

Peace is something that still eludes him in the house at Castlerock his parents moved to after selling up in Claudy. He is reminded of the bone-shattering impact of the bombs by pottery saved from the rubble by his mum, now super-glued back together.

In the past few years, Mark sought the counselling that he didn't receive as a young boy. He has two daughters now, Rebecca and Samantha Kathryn, his eldest. He feels the counselling has brought him closer to them. "I would find it very hard to say to someone that 'I love you'," he says, "I always put a bit of distance."

"That apparently is due to a lack of getting proper counselling at the time of the bombing because I lost so much that I cared about."

The girls are 13 and 11, somewhere around the age Mark was when his family was ripped apart. "My oldest girl is named after Kathryn and she's constantly asking what happened. 'But why Daddy, why did they kill Kathryn?'" He has no answers for her.

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